Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A nation in the dark

The history of Uganda's power sector is short and uneventful. In 1954 the British dammed the Nile just out of Lake Victoria and built the Owen Falls hydro power plant and a transmission grid stretching to the main population centers. Half a century later the only major addition to the power net is a few additional turbines in the Owen Falls dam and a couple of small scale hydro plants, but mostly the utilities infrastructure remains much the same – what does not remain the same is Uganda's population: It was 5.7 million in 1954 and it's now 31.5 million!

Uganda's total power production in 2006 was a measly 1.2 billion kWh, or 38 kWh per person. Norway's in contrast was 135 bn kWh, or 28,723 KWh per person – or 754 times that of Uganda! Needless to say there are a couple of implications of this obvious shortage of power.

(The Owen Falls dam on the Nile)

Power cuts – the cost of doing business

The frequent power cuts and power shortage is often referred to as one part of "the cost of doing business" [in Uganda]. Say you operated a factory for 10 hours a day with machines running on external electricity. If power is out 2 hours a day on average – then your production will be down 20% on average. In reality it's more than that, as the timing and length of the cuts will vary, not allowing you to plan properly; staff will be out drinking tea and will need time to get back in position; etc. Those are the direct problems. The indirect ones includes everything that hits you through other services – banks, telecom companies suppliers and customers are all affected by power cuts – so your transfers will be late, your calls will be cut off, your customers will not get their emails. The total cost to your business is incalculable.

Most factories, hotels and serious business cannot afford daily power cuts; hence they all have on-site diesel generators, as a consequence Kampala is full of humming and exhausts spewing generators of various sizes. Indeed, a full blown diesel fired power plant has recently been commissioned – at 50 MW and consuming thousands of barrels a day it makes Eastern European dirty coal plants look like a Greenpeace invention. In fairness though, the people of Uganda produces very low emissions per capita.

So with the enormous problems created by the lack of power, why hasn’t more been installed? The cost to the economy is surely astronomical. From an investor point of view, putting up power plants involves very high upfront construction costs followed by a steady stream of cash flows over the next 15-20 from the buyer of your power - usually the government. Unless you know with near certainty that the government will continue purchasing the power you are producing in the long term, the investment is ludicrous. Uganda as a sovereign entity is defacto bankrupt with 40% of its annual national government budget coming from direct aid transfers from the Nordic countries, the UK, Ireland and the World Bank. Put another way, there is no reliable buyer of power. Uganda's struggling businesses will remain in the dark until one shows up.
Peder Hanssen

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Planning for the Rwenzori expedition

In the spring of 2006 I was occasionally frequenting the weekly meetings at the Mountain Club of Kenya (MCK) at their clubhouse in Nairobi. On one of these evenings some members held a slide show about an expedition to the Rwenzori Mountains. The speaker was engaging and knowledgeable, and the pictures amazing.
Shrouded in fog and low clouds, hidden away in the remote west of Uganda along the DRC border, the mountains seemed mysterious and intriguing. I have wanted to do that climb ever since.

Being in Uganda is obviously a great starting point to finally do this climb. Hence, it's finally happening and on the 21st February I am going, together with an Australian colleague, on an 8-day hike through the mountains and hopefully to the top of Mt Stanley (at 5,109m Africa's third highest mountain).

Expedition outline
We will start out near the town of Kasase, at 1,650 meters above sea level, where we will pick up a guide, a cook and two to three porters for each of us. So the total expedition should count about 8 – 10 persons. (All food, cooking equipment, etc, has to be carried, hence the number of porters). For three days we will hike along the so-called "Central Circuit" and spend the nights at basic huts set up and administered by the Uganda Wildlife Authorities. From what we have heard the accommodation is basic but adequate.

The highest laying hut is the Elena hut at 4,540 meters were we will stay either one or two nights (depending on weather conditions) and from where we will try and reach the peak of Mt Stanley – the Margarita Peak. There is some technical difficulty on the final ascent: Crossing two small glaciers, and then scaling a vertical rock face near the peak. Will be interesting, as I have never done that (at any altitude), but apparently no prior experience is required. In any event, we have decided to be particularly careful and not think twice about turning back should weather conditions deteriorate. From the peak down there are another three to four days hiking along a different path in between some of the other tall peaks of the mountain range.

Planning and preparing for an expedition from the ground is paradoxically turning out to be a bit of a disadvantage. Mainly because there is very limited availability of hiking gear and woolen clothes for sale in Uganda, and I have not brought anything down. We have, however, spoken with a couple of people who have done the trek, and gathered valuable advise on how, timing the hike, how to avoid altitude sickness and what to bring.

Apparently. about 1,200 people enters the Rwenzori National Park every year. Not sure what percentage of these people climb the peaks versus those who just hike in the lower reaches (like I did back in January) I will try to find out.

It’s the highest mountain chain in Africa and contains the third highest mountain (both Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya are higher, but they are stand - alone mountains)

With Afro-Alpine moorland in the areas above 4,000 meters, the vegetation in the Rwenzori Mountains is unique to equatorial alpine Africa.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sailing on Lake Victoria

The world's third largest lake lies in Uganda, or rather in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Lake Victoria, at 68,800km2, is about the size of Ireland!. On the lake, about an hour south of Kampala, close to Entebbe (the old Capital of Uganda) and the international airport, a small, old colonial relic lives on. The Entebbe Sailing Club offers boat hire, relaxing lawns and a pool overlooking the lake. I went down there the other week with some friends to try the water and the wind. As Kampala is not on the lake, the only option for swimming in the city is hotel or club swimming pools – which is nice enough of course.. Yet, natural waters have added charms.

And risks..: There seems to be some dispute about how safe it is to swim in the lake. There is certainly bilharzia (a parasite that penetrates your skin, finds its way to the liver where it feeds and develop into worms..), Apparently you are only at risk if you swim near the shore and near sea plants, so jumping from a boat is safe, but then what if what if the lake is shallow..?

Crocodiles – before setting out from the sailing club in the small and unstable Laser boat I was reassured that there were no crocodiles in that particular area of the Lake. However, a quick Google search just now yielded the following article excerpt:

[Crocodiles have already eaten over a dozen people since January this year along the shores of Lake Victoria in the eastern Mayuge district of Uganda, local media reported on Monday. Namugongo resident council chairman Joseph Waiwsa was quoted bythe New Vision as saying that the crocodiles had attacked many children from going down the lake to collect water." We are living in fear of the carnivorous crocodiles that have already eaten over a dozen people this year and over 30 people in the last two years," Waiwsa added.]

The article is from 2002, but still I don't find this reassuring. As with most other incidents in Africa, such attacks are certainly under-reported. And even if it was a different area, crocodilles do swim long distances.

I just finished reading a biography on Stanley, and was proud to be sailing in the very waters were he as the first European set sail and met with the ferocious king of the Buganda – Mutesa in 1877. Stanley and his followers had carried a small steam boat up from the coast of Tanzania, reassembled it on Lake Victoria and circumvented the lake. The story of his meeting with the king is fascinating reading. I think it took place near or in present day Entebbe and the sailing club. Stanley walked up from the lake in between thousand of Buganda soldiers lining the parade street up to the king's village. An agreement to allow missionaries access to the land was signed, marking the beginning of British influence in Uganda. The British brought development, infrastructure and trade, but also a range of problems. Among their better imports was sailing.